plastic surgery

How Western Influence Caused an Identity Crisis Among Women in South Korea

plastic surgery

By Sarah Zinn

Move over Silicone Valley, plastic surgery’s popularity has erupted in South Korea in the last decade, increasingly in young women. One in five Korean women between the ages of 19 and 49 have had some kind of procedure, according to a survey by Trend Monitor. Some mothers even persuade their daughters to go under the knife because many of them believe it will make them more successful in finding a husband and in their profession.

According to the New York Times, civic groups have spoke out against the commonality of the surgeries, protesting their discriminatory nature against women and the poor. Number 108 on the 2012 Global Gender Gap Report — between the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait — South Korea is in the bottom 30 of countries ranked by gender equality. This may speak to the culture’s emphasis on women’s beauty in success. A surgery that manipulates lips into a perpetual state of “subtly smiling” has gained popularity, largely because women feel they need to look happier at work.

Once shameful operations done in secret, plastic surgery’s increasing popularity has led to a widespread cultural acceptance of the practice. Celebrity groups such as  T-ara have readily admitted to having work done, and ads targeting young women are increasingly common. The New York Times reported that 4,000 clinics provide plastic surgery and 1,500 doctors are trained as plastic surgeons, most along Korea’s “beauty belt,” a hub for the surgeries.

Most women lust for wider eyes with double lids and V-shaped chins, a western look achievable through what are considered basic surgeries. However more extreme surgeries, such as the double jaw, surgery has recently gained popularity, despite its dangerous procedure. In 2011 a woman hung herself after her double jaw operation went wrong.

The idealization of the “Western” look rejects the idea that naturally Korean features are beautiful too. This belief has also paved the way for a population of look-alikes among upper class Koreans. The Miss Korea 2013 pageant was mocked for its contestants’ striking similarities in facial appearance.

South Koreans seems to agree that there is a definition of beauty, and it is a Western one that is worth the pain.


sarah zinn 150x150 THRIVE: A Farm to Cup Model that is Giving Coffee Farmers the Perks They Deserve Sarah Zinn is currently a student at Indiana University studying Journalism. She’s a creative, passionate writer with a compulsion for wit. In her free time, she enjoys venturing outdoors, eating ethnic food, painting and on the rare occasion, sleeping. She is very interested in civil rights, the environment, public policy, and the arts. She has a curiosity for most things, excluding only finite math and stressfully dramatic shows such as CSI and 90210. She is a diehard fan of Seinfeld and most girl bands of the indie rock persuasion. The daughter of an expat, Sarah has called the state of Indiana, Athens GR, and London England home within the 19 years of her life. Sarah writes for her university’s newspaper the Indiana Daily Student, and has been published in Indianapolis Monthly Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @sarah_zinn.

  1. A few days ago, I was in the Seoul airport on a layover with my Indian friend, and in the duty-free shop she noticed I was being constantly asked if I needed any help (I’m a white American). I actually wasn’t buying anything, just waiting for my friend – but she was buying $250 worth of products, and was not approached for assistance ONCE. Stuff like this happened all during our trip (which was to Cambodia, not Korea), but it really illuminated how we were each valued, and all on a first-impression basis.

  2. Why is it that when Asian people get cosmetic surgery it’s automatically to look more “Western”?

    Do you hear Asian people full of it -enough to say that when a White person gets a lipoplasty, it’s to look more skinny and hence more Asian? When they’re getting botox it’s to look younger than their age and hence, more Asian?

    No. You pretty much don’t hear that. Because that is certainly NOT why you get those treatments. Neither are Asian people getting treatments to look more “Western” either.

    1. Ryan, thats because the culture of plastic surgery stemmed from the West. And by altering their looks to look more caucasion, they have undermined their asian heritage thinking it is inferior.

      1. I’d argue that Ryan has a legit argument actually. There was an online blog series about a Korean-American who was in the running for Miss Korea and from her experience, she found that her “American” looks actually hindered her and that Korean women were going for Korean ideals of beauty. It seems rather arrogant of Westerners to claim otherwise and this article makes a lot of assumptions.

        1. MizzJ

          Korean ideals of beauty does come from the fact they want to look Caucasian. Why? because its a universal standard of beauty. They want to make their looks opposite. Like white women want to be tanned, dark women want to be whiter, hence racially mixed personalities are seen as a perfect blend.

          The question you should ask is, where did the notion of ‘Korean ideal’ of beauty come from? An answer would be to look at their history. White is symbol of modesty and beauty in Korea.

          1. I agree with Ryan’s point, but not how he argues it. Young and skinny aren’t Asian qualities. Nor is a v-shaped face a Caucasian quality. In fact, Westerners aren’t usually even aware of things like face shape, which is important to Koreans. Koreans have a long list of specific requirements for beauty (the v-shape face, super skinny s-line body, big eyes with double eye lids, a certain shape nose, no prominent cheeks, very white skin etc) and it seems to me that they have their own historical and social motivations for this.

  3. Koreans aren’t idolizing “Western” looks, they are aspiring toward a Korean standard of beauty that is quite different from that of the West. For example, wanting a V shaped chin is not a western standard. Wanting flawless skin, one of the most important standards, is DEFINITELY not Western, as Koreans tend to have much better skin than Caucasians, thicker and far less wrinkle prone. The nose is supposed to be North Asian, NOT Caucasian, which they find too big. The eyes are also supposed to be Northern Asian, and almond shaped, NOT Caucasian. Not one of the standards of beauty I have witnessed in Korea would I consider “Western.”

    1. Actions speak louder than words my friend. ALL the plastic surgeries coming out of south Korea are for V shape face, round eye surgery, straight noses, chin implants, dyed blonde hair, blue green eyes contact lenses.

      These are EUROPEAN facial features. They are trying to look WHITE. Any fool could see this.

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